Denver Broncos 2021 Season Team Awards

Now that the Denver Broncos have hired their next head coach, Nathaniel Hackett, the regime, team, and fans are all looking ahead to the bright future. As such, perhaps looking back at a troublingly mediocre 2021 campaign concluding with a coaching change is fruitless. That said, a team needs to understand where they are coming from to move forward as effectively as possible. This past season was frustrating for fans and the team alike, but the campaign nonetheless illustrated who is likely to form the foundation of the team moving ahead with Hackett. That very foundation consists of several players who earned these Denver Broncos 2021 season team awards.

Denver Broncos 2021 Season Team Awards

Most Valuable Player: Justin Simmons, Free Safety

Justin Simmons, the Face of the Franchise

This one is virtually a no-brainer. Perennial All-Pro safety Justin Simmons has been in the conversation for the best safety in football for three years running. After arguably the best season of his career last year, Simmons somehow managed to play at a similar level. In 2021, he posted a career high in sacks (1.5) and the lowest missed-tackle rate of his impressive career thus far.

Simmons accrued a career-high five interceptions in 2020; he subsequently notched five interceptions once again in 2021, bringing his total to 17 over the past four years. This number is best among safeties in that time frame. Additionally, Simmons—on 53 targets—allowed the second-lowest completion percentage of his career (59.3 percent). Whether he was making plays in pass defense or snuffing out runs, Simmons continued to etch his name into the storied history of Denver’s track record of great safeties.

Justin Simmons, Walter Payton Man of the Year Nominee

His on-field production depicts him as the undisputed leader of the defense, especially following the trade of Von Miller. That said, his off-field contributions to both the team and the community also make Simmons the most valuable player the franchise has. This year, Denver nominated Simmons for his third Walter Payton Man of the Year recognition, making him the second Bronco to receive three nominations. What’s even more impressive is that Simmons became the first in team history to receive those three nominations consecutively. The franchise is incredibly lucky to have a player and a man like Justin Simmons fighting the good fight for them.

Offensive Player of the Year: Melvin Gordon III, Running Back

A vocal minority of Broncos Country wields serious contempt for Melvin Gordon as a result of his tendency to fumble in key situations. His costly giveaway in Week 18 against the Kansas City Chiefs is an obvious example. However, Gordon’s positive contributions in his two years with the team far outshine his bad moments.

He started 16 of the 17 possible games in 2021. In doing so, he lead the team in rushing yards and scores for the second consecutive season. His 918 rushing yards were more than any other Bronco accrued in any capacity. Likewise, his eight rushing scores led the team; those eight scores were three more than anyone else was able to total in any individual category. His numbers are even more impressive in context. The most salient context is his having split carries with another back— one who will also appear on this list of Denver Broncos 2021 season team awards.

The numbers themselves suggest this was one of the best seasons of Gordon’s career, but the tape solidifies the sentiment. His rushing capabilities from the backfield (despite ineptitude at the offensive coordinator role) helped the team make it to seven wins on the season. Without Gordon’s contributions, the team might not have broken four victories. Fans might wish he could better protect the football, but either way, he was arguably the team’s best offensive player for the last two years.

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Defensive Player (and Rookie) of the Year: Patrick Surtain II, Cornerback

Defensive Player of the Year

Many—if not most—Broncos fans were unhappy with the selection of Patrick Surtain II in the 2021 NFL Draft. Since then, Surtain has solidified himself as a cornerstone (pun intended) of the future of this defense. In fact, Surtain is, in effect, the only viable candidate for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award other than the player those unhappy Broncos fans wanted more in Micah Parsons. Surtain was thrust into the starting role due to injuries and poor play at the cornerback position, and it wound up the best thing the team could have done.

As a rookie, Surtain accrued 58 tackles, 14 deflections, and four interceptions (which led all rookies). His interceptions came at key moments in multiple games, including two he notched in an unlikely win over the Los Angeles Chargers. No other defender on the team was targeted as often as Surtain, who only allowed 51 percent of the 96 passes thrown his way to be caught by the receiver. Surtain was also the only cornerback in the league who was able to shut down presumed NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja’Marr Chase, holding him to a mere single catch.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Additionally, Surtain followed suit in Denver’s storied history of cornerbacks who can and will make tackles in the run game like Champ Bailey and Chris Harris, Jr. He displayed this prowess against the run most notably later on in the season. His missed-tackle rate was only slightly inferior to Justin Simmons’s, and Simmons plays safety.

At the end of the year, it was clear Surtain had illustrated poise under pressure and made tangible strides as an overall defender. Essentially, Surtain never made the same mistake twice, an invaluable skill for a young athlete the likes of ‘PS2’. His production provides general manager George Paton flexibility with the cornerback position, which should help the team manage their finances in the context of the salary cap. When a player can produce for a team on and off of the field this immediately, there’s no question he belongs on a list like this one.

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Offensive Rookie of the Year: Javonte Williams, Running Back

Rookie running back Javonte Williams was such an intriguing option the team decided to trade up to select him in George Paton’s first draft. Williams proved his doubters wrong by finishing the year second in the league in broken tackles as a rookie. He did so with 129 fewer carries than the top tackle-breaker in the league. What’s even scarier is that he managed to do so in Pat Shurmur’s offense, which rarely (if ever) utilized players properly.

He finished his rookie campaign with 903 yards on 203 carries, splitting said carries down the middle with Melvin Gordon. It’s true he only scored four rushing touchdowns. However, it is also true that he often found himself taken off of the field in the red zone in favor of Gordon. Javonte spent 2021 making the most of somewhat limited opportunities. What separates him from the rest, however, is in that it was not just breaking tackles that made him special.

It was, perhaps, in the passing game where Williams impressed the most. His 43 catches for 316 yards and three receiving scores are certainly nothing to write home about, but he was far and away the most consistent and reliable back in the passing offense. Williams even showed significant improvement as a pass blocker as the season ran on.

Javonte Williams: The Bellcow of 2022?

At the end of the day, Williams ran angry on every single play in which he touched the ball. His aggressive running style sparked life in an offense Shurmur was doing his best to make anemic and boring. He has considerable room to grow in several aspects when it comes to being a fully well-rounded back, but he was quite clearly the best offensive rookie on the team.

Like Surtain, Williams also made the All-Rookie team. His potential is limitless and Broncos Country looks forward to seeing what a competent play caller can do with him.

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Comeback Player of the Year: Courtland Sutton, Wide Receiver

Before his torn A.C.L. in 2020, Courtland Sutton was primed to become the next great Denver Broncos wide receiver. Since returning from that injury, Sutton has made strides to return to that level (and eventually surpass it). In 2021, he finished first in targets on the team, as well as second in catches and first in receiving yards. His 776 receiving yards were good for second-most in a season in his career. Additionally, he was second on the team in catches that earned first downs, illustrating his talent for moving the sticks in key situations.

After only playing 31 snaps in 2020, he played 920 in 2021. His 920 snaps this year were the second-most snaps he’s accrued in a season in his career. In other words, even while recovering from a significant, season-ending injury Courtland Sutton is one of the most consistent and reliable offensive players the team has. This has made Sutton the team’s top receiver despite back-to-back seasons of consistency from fellow wideout Tim Patrick.

Courtland in Context

Sutton’s production came despite the mediocrity under center throughout his career. Sutton has never played with an even above-average quarterback. This means 2022 possibly presents the young receiver his best opportunity to solidify himself as the team’s number-one receiver. What makes Sutton so important, however, is his leadership on the field and in the receiver room.

His 2019 campaign suggested Sutton could not only be the top receiver in Denver but one of the top receivers in the conference. Sutton was able to put up numbers like this while still not back to a full 100 percent with his knee. More impressively, perhaps, he did so while catching passes from Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock. If Denver adds a quarterback, the sky’s the limit.

Most Improved Player: Lloyd Cushenberry III, Center

Quite simply, Lloyd Cushenberry III was not very good during his rookie season in 2020. His athleticism was obvious, but he was unable to put it together between the ears or in a more physical capacity. That said, he stepped up considerably in 2021. He has quite a way to go, for sure, but the improvement he showed this season suggests he might be able to change the narrative on his play.

Yes, Cushenberry still gets blown off of the ball by bigger or stronger interior defensive linemen and has proven susceptible to stunts. He needs to get stronger and more decisive in his movement. Yes, he’s best in the run game when he reaches the second level. He needs to develop a more well-rounded blocking skillset. Nonetheless, the L.S.U. alumnus has put some impressive things on the tape, too. Most notably, Cushenberry has shown significant improvement in the mental aspect of the game.

Cushenberry in Context

There was a revolving door at both left and right guard due to injuries throughout this season. Despite seemingly constant changeover at the positions on either side of him, Cushenberry anchored the interior all year. He helped the similar carousel at quarterback identify blitzing defenders. Like he did in college, he also helped identify and exploit tendencies in the front seven. This allowed the Broncos to finish 2021 as the only team with two rushers gaining over 800 yards on the ground each.

Regardless of how much more room he has to improve, Cushenberry has made significant strides and earned the role of incumbent heading into the 2022 season. He has also earned this distinction among these Denver Broncos 2021 season team awards.

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